Foundational Elements of Practice
Zen is a very practical and experiential practice. While reading books about Zen can draw us closer, it is putting down the book and beginning to sit on a cushion that truly embodies beginning practice. For our practice to establish itself and continue to grow well, we benefit from having certain elements in place. These include regular (usually daily) zazen practice, regular practice with a group (called a sangha, meaning the Buddhist community), attending intensive retreats which can vary in length from a half-day to a weekend to a full week, and study with a teacher. Especially in the beginning of practice, it is advisable to limit our reading to books that provide practical instruction and encouragement rather than complex philosophy that could become a distraction.
Regular Zazen Practice
Why do we use the term “sitting” rather than meditation? The term “meditation” tends to suggest concentrating on an object, so there is a sense of subject and object. The term “sitting” refers to just sitting still with full awareness and attention. It is like a pond whose surface has become still in the absence of wind and naturally reflects the moon clearly. In counting and following the breath, we do pay attention to breathing, but the instruction is to become breathing — to unify body, breath, and mind — rather than objectifying breath as something to concentrate on.
It is ideal to receive in-person instruction on how to practice zazen (literally, seated zen). Your instructor will go over the basics of body, breath, and mind and help you discover which seated postures work best for you. At GPZC, you are welcome to sit in a chair if none of the postures on the cushion or bench are feasible for you. Sometimes, people alternate, sitting on a cushion for one sitting period (usually 30 minutes) and in a chair for the next. After you learn how to sit and try out various cushions, you may want to purchase your own to use at home. The important point is to determine a posture that will allow you to be still and stable so that you can develop your concentration.
Your teacher will assign a practice: counting the breath, following the breath, shikan-taza (just sitting), or koan study. What practice best suits you is determined through working with your teacher and often changes throughout the course of your practice.
People tend to be very busy between work, children, self-care, and other responsibilities and duties. Finding a place and time in your life for practice requires some perseverance. We recommend several things to help you get a regular sitting practice established. Try to pick a consistent time and place in your home to sit. It is better to sit for a shorter period of time and do it consistently as opposed to sitting for a longer period but more sporadically. Some people create an altar and even use incense to help create focus. A home altar can include:
- A statue or representation of the Buddha (this can be a statue, a picture or a natural object like a stone)
- Flowers representing impermanence
- A candle representing wisdom
- A small water bowl, called a shasuiki, that serves as an offering for those thirsting for the Dharma
- An incense bowl (incense represents purity)
Sitting with a Group
Sitting regularly with a group of practitioners can provide support, encouragement, and camaraderie. From the origins of Buddhist practice 2,500 years ago, the Sangha, or community of practitioners was very important. In fact the precepts we take as Buddhists today evolved from the experience of a diverse group of people living and practicing together harmoniously. Many people find sitting with a group easier than sitting on their own. Currently, we have several in-person opportunities for group sitting practice: Palatine, IL on Sunday evenings, One Saturday morning per month in Monroe, Wisconsin, and one Thursday evening per month in DeKalb, Illinois. We also offer online sitting Tuesday through Friday mornings at 6 AM and on Sunday evenings. Click on the above links to see detailed schedules for any of these.
Retreats are an opportunity to come to the Zen Center for a day, a weekend, or longer to engage in intensive practice. Retreats are primarily silent, allowing participants to stay focussed and attentive in all activities. A typical retreat has 10 or more half-hour periods of zazen per day and includes three silent meals, a work practice period, a self care period and chanting services. Retreats called zazenkai or sesshin, depending on the length vary from a weekend to a week long.
In March and September, we have Beginner’s Mind Sesshin. These retreats are especially geared for those with limited to no prior retreat experience. During the retreat, participants receive instruction and explanation and the schedule is not quite as rigorous as other retreats. We recommend that when you feel ready for your first retreat, you consider attending a Beginner’s Mind Sesshin.
Formal Study with a Teacher
Study with a teacher is an important part of Zen practice. In accordance with the Zen tradition going back hundreds of years, someone can only become a Zen teacher after receiving approval from their own Zen teacher. This usually requires years of diligent study and perseverance in the face of the endless difficulties and challenges encountered along the way. Approving a student to become a teacher is called shiho or Dharma transmission. In our lineage, having shiho confers the title of Sensei. When the new teacher is given complete independence or final approval, this is called inka. At that point, the title Roshi (literally old teacher) can be used.
A teacher’s central role is to help a student awaken to their true nature. Through ongoing work with the teacher, the student can further refine their understanding and work to bring all aspects of their life into alignment with it. A teacher can help us to see our blind spots and where we are getting stuck or side-tracked. It is highly advisable to choose a teacher and stay with that teacher for a long time, rather than moving quickly from teacher to teacher. Initially, we may want to visit different Zen Centers and see which teacher seems like the right teacher for us. Teachers’ styles and demeanors vary considerably. What is important is that we pick a teacher who encourages us in our practice and whom we trust.
At Great Plains Zen Center, everyone who comes to practice is offered the opportunity to meet with GPZC’s resident teacher, Myoyu Roshi in face-to-face meetings called dokusan. The student can also see how it feels to be part of the GPZC Sangha (Zen Community) and consider whether the group and teacher are a good fit for them or not. If the student feels that they want to make a formal commitment to study with Myoyu Roshi, they should request a GPZC Sangha Community Handbook and begin to follow the Student Path outlined in the booklet. There is no pressure to become a student (a role similar to “member.” ) However, many find benefits in making a more formal commitment. Read a description of the Student Path here.
Recommended Books for those New to Practice
Reading books is not a requirement for practicing Zen. In fact, it is often said that the best Zen book is one that makes you want to put it down and go sit. Nevertheless, there are some encouraging and practice-related books that are recommended for those establishing a practice. Find a list of recommended books here.